Advice: A safe return to work

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Jacksons Law Firm’s health and safety consultant Mark Stough with some useful return-to-work advice for employers…

The last few months have been a very strange time for all businesses across the north east and whilst the support provided by the Government is welcomed, business leaders understand that it cannot go on indefinitely.

It looks like the coronavirus peak has now passed and whilst there is still a significant risk to the country a phased return to work is being recommended by the Government. On 11 May 2020, the Government published guidance on how businesses can safely re-commence operations whilst protecting their employees and others. The guidance that has been issued is sector specific and covers the following areas:

• construction and other outdoor work
• factories, plants and warehouses
• laboratories and research facilities
• officers and contact centres
• working in other people’s homes
• restaurants offering takeaway or delivery services
• shops and branches
• working in or from vehicles

Whilst each of the guidance documents contains practical steps specific to the relevant industry, the general principles are the same for all employers. Businesses should follow the Government’s five-step plan before reopening business premises and starting operations. The five steps are:

1. Carry out the coronavirus risk assessment – the risk assessment should follow the advice provided by the Health and Safety Executive and include consultation with workers as well as relevant trade unions. The Government recommends that the results of the risk assessment are shared with the employer’s workforce on the company’s website.

2. Developing robust cleaning, hand washing and hygiene procedures in the workplace – employers should take active steps to encourage employees, visitors and contractors to follow the published guidance on hand washing and hygiene requirements. This also includes the provision of hand sanitiser and hand drying around the workplace in addition to existing toilet facilities, frequent cleaning and disinfecting of objects and surfaces which are touched regularly and instigating enhanced cleaning for the busy areas and toilets.
3. Take all reasonable steps to help people work from home – employers should continue to allow employees to work from home where this is possible. Discussions with employees around homeworking arrangements should be undertaken as well as the provision of equipment to facilitate working remotely. Businesses should ensure that regular communication is maintained with staff working remotely to ensure their physical and mental well-being.

4. Social distancing should be observed where possible – in the work environment employers should encourage and take active steps to ensure that staff, visitors and contractors maintain a 2m distance where this is possible. Businesses should consider displaying signs to remind people to maintain the 2m distance, avoid sharing workstations, consider using floor tape and other markers to help people maintain the 2m distance as well as implementing one-way traffic systems where possible. Visitors to the workplace should be kept to a minimum and be by appointment only.

5. Transmission risk should be managed where it is not possible for people to be 2m apart – where it is not possible for people to keep 2m apart, employers should consider whether that specific activity needs to continue for the business to operate, keep the activity time involved as short as possible and consider using screens or other barriers to separate people from each other. Businesses should reconfigure workstations where possible to ensure social distancing and, where this is not practicable, staff should work back-to-back or side-to-side rather than face-to-face. Staggering start, finish and break times will help ensure that staff can maintain social distancing during those periods. Where staff have to work with partners or small teams these should be static or fixed and avoid changes in personnel.

Where employers prepare a robust risk assessment and implement control measures effectively the risk of transmission will be significantly reduced. It is acknowledged that many staff will be anxious about returning to work and that is why it is vital to communicate and discuss the findings of the risk assessment with the workforce and consider any concerns that they have.

This will reassure staff and the return to work is more likely to result in a positive experience and allay many fears.

Mark Stouph
Health & Safety Consultant, Jacksons Law Firm